Sunday, March 11, 2007

Public schools drowning in lawsuit-proofing conduct rules


Ian Shapira has a story in the March 11, 2007 The Washington Post, p. A1, "Modern-Day 3 R's: Rules ..; Students Chafe as Schools' Web of Restrictions Grows", here.

The rules at schools around the DC area may not sound as draconian as in other communities around the country (especially in the South and Midwest), where kids have been suspended for the most trivial of "offenses" such as carrying a patent medicine from home accidentally. Of course, as the article points out, principals are under the gun, constantly worried about frivolous lawsuits from parents (as well as major incidents, however rare statistically), so many of them feel that they have no choice but to apply their rules with zero tolerance.

In fact, teachers have rules, too. In Virginia, there is a strict law against possession of a weapon, even unloaded and locked up, in one's automobile on school property, even if the car is locked. It does get enforced. It's not clear, however, that these sorts of laws get much beyond this one item.

Having been a substitute teacher on-and-off since 2004, I feel the silliness of being asked to sign pass books for students to go to the water fountain. (Some schools or regular teachers want to limit the bathroom breaks per quarter and dock points for excessive breaks! And there really is not enough passing time between classes, given capacity; although in high school I learned to manage fine with 5-minute transition periods between bells.) I know that 99.9% of the time there is no issue. I try to be low keyed about this, and I have no interest in pretending to be an authority figure (and protective adult) for its own sake. That gets into another tangential area -- my own interpersonal socialization, or lack of it (at 63, I have not raised a family of my own), and the question of whether others can depend on me to be a contingent authority figure when things have broken down around because of external circumstances beyond anyone's control according to ordinary norms of "personal responsibility." Short term subs have no real authority to make decisions that have any significant impact on students (such as their grades). As a practical matter, it can be difficult to enforce rules literally (like about cell phones) when in a particular set of circumstances applying them literally would seem to violate common sense.

In fact, as a boy, I resented the idea that adults would do things "just for authority" and expect me to perform certain unnecessary tasks just to prove that I could conform to social expectations when later it might become really necessary because of unpredictable calamities. (That whole style of thinking pervaded during the previous era of the military draft.) That whole concept of socialization and authority patterns creates a "perfect storm" with modern ideas of individual sovereignty and freedom -- yet kids cannot be free adults until they learn what the rules are. And the uncertainties of our world certain beg for people to learn to "get along" and pay their dues.

The best kind of class for a sub is one where the lesson plan indicates that the students are to complete some kind of project (other than take a test or quiz) during the class period, and hand it in. I then tell the students that this is a warm up for the real workplace. (The task could be to draw a map for history, develop an essay map according to a rubric, or fill in a math worksheet to develop the concept of a Riemann inegral.) When they get out and earn their own paychecks, they will find that employers expect certain specific things to be done correctly and on time (like balancing a cash register after a shift). So I tell them, pretend that this is a day at work. (After all, I spent thirty years in information technology, dealing with perfect quality assurance and promotions to production, and nighttime cycle abends and out-of-balance conditions; I hope that the legacy of this experience is worth something to them.) That day will come soon! Employers certainly like to hear this. (Keep in mind, some low-end jobs are very regimented and don't allow many bathroom breaks; I can imagine Barbara Ehrenreich running into this with her "Nickel and Dimed" book experiment.) Students who already have part-time jobs (or had summer jobs) often do seem to be more mature. They get this. My own father made so much virtue of "learning to work"!

By the way, some students wonder why they have to take and pass something like Algebra, whose abstractions mean nothing to them in the real world. Just go see the film "Maxed Out" and see how credit card companies take advantage of the mathematically unwary. Math problems -- especially the notorious "story problems" -- matter.

Quote from Stephen King, "Cell" (2006): "A young mind is a lamp in the darkness." (p 181).

Picture: Punta Gorda, FL, 2004, after Hurricane Ivan, a year before Katrina.

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